Capitalizing the first letter of each beginning word in a line of poetry is traditional, if not contemporary and common.  Historically, this is how poetry has been distinguished from other art forms when rendered on the page, and writing it this way is still often taught in elementary and secondary schools.  In scholarship, of course, it is de rigueur that one be careful to note this capitalization, and to reproduce it faithfully when quoting.

In professional contemporary letters, however, the waters have been muddied.  As a reaction to tradition, with plenty of examples even within the tradition, American poets often stopped capitalizing their lines beginning loosely with the second half of the 20th Century, a period generally associated with free verse.  The abandonment of this particular custom has become the ready practice, so much so that contemporary readers now encountering capitalized first words in lines may find them startling.

Why poets even did this has essentially been lost to us, beyond the historicity of being able to say that poets just always did this.  The original truth of its
why may be as simple as housekeeping--poetry like this, prose like that.  Or it may reside in some nobler ambition, such as attempting to reflect a studied anticipation at the great orator's next line.  If the line was delivered in appropriately dramatic fashion, the capital letter in this circumstance became a cue to the reader that a deep breath was taken at this place. 

The idea of a breath being taken, or a dramatic point being made, may also be a useful consideration in trying to understand line breaks.  It is reasonable to thing that the two worked in concert: The line break was made clear and certain for the reader by the capitalizing of the first word of the next line, this visual cue serving as assurance to the careful reader that, indeed, a line break was intended even if there was no other punctuation at the end of the line to so indicate. 

The convention of capitalizing, however, was likely such a
pro forma convention that it was never deemed necessary to write its usage into the rules of formal verse writing.  The sonnet may have 14 lines and a variety of other defining aspects, but nowhere do the rules say that the first word of each line in a sonnet particularly must be capitalized.  This is probably not because it was unimportant to the form, but rather that it was so strong an unspoken convention in poetry generally that nobody thought to include mention of this practice in any specific rules.  And since it was not written into the rules, the contemporary writer has taken this to mean that capitalizing of this sort is not, therefore, one of the rules.

Regardless of how we might feel about the historical aspects of this now, the fact is that--in the same way that capitalizing became the standard originally--not capitalizing now has the majority of practitioners.  One would hope, however, that these poets are acting out of choice, rather than habit or lack of knowledge.  Capitalizing the first word in a line is one of the traditional tools of poetry writing, and using or not using it is a decision that a poet should make after some consideration.  But whatever the decision, the practice today is clearly personal.

In my own writing, I do capitalize the first word in lines of poems.  This is my own decision about my own work, and not anything more.  Fashionable or not, I myself have found meaning in doing so, and meaning is something to value wherever we find it.  For my own part, I capitalize letters at the beginning of each line:

· to remind myself that I am writing a poem;
· to underscore to myself the integrity of the line, which is after all what distinguishes poetry from all other literary genres;
· to connect myself to history for a very brief moment before I go on to say what I myself have to say now;
· to give each line--however subtle--its own authority;
· to suggest that, although I may be telling a story, it is not a regular story, and certainly not prose;
· to make my enjambment have to work honestly, and to give my end-stopped lines greater Moment;
· to build up thoughtful pacing in a poem, suggesting or invoking a little more strongly all the reasons we break lines to begin with--breath, heartbeat, dramatic intention;
· to recognize this use of the shift key as a self-conscious act, which raises the stakes for everyone and everything--the poem, the poet, and the reader;
· to do more work in this small moment, knowing that work makes more things happen;
· to rhyme--that is, to use this recurring, predictable device of capitalization in the ways that poems have often used many devices, such as rhyme, to give structure and sensibility to the poem; knowing that I'm going to capitalize the first word in each line gives all my poems at least some rudimentary structure;
· to understand that a poem cannot be contained--rather, it launches outward and away from what we know; that is, capitalizing the first letter of a line can be predicted and controlled ahead of time, but that's all that can be controlled, so that the poem, each line of the way, is launched, and this launching, this kicking away from the shore of the left margin is always an act of power, imagination, and adventure.

Every one of these ambitions for a poem can be accomplished in some other fashion, often as described in the reasoning itself--a poet might use traditional rhyme, for example, instead of capitalization to accomplish just the same result.  And understand that these are all simply ambitions for poems--not rules.  Absolutely none of this has to be done, at all.  A poet has many tools in the toolbox, including rejection of what anyone else has done or is doing.  But rejection, of course, supposes that the poet has something better to offer.  Take care in understanding that caveat.

I don't want someone to tell me what to do in my own writing, not when the choice is mine--I am, after all, a child of my time.  Please understand, then, that I don't personally advocate one practice or the other for poets.  And I don't feel one thing or another when I read capitals at the beginnings of lines.  This is because the practice is not for others, and I don't expect others to be doing it for me.  If they are, then the dramatic or didactic effect is likely more bothersome than effective, and should be avoided.  If they are doing it for me, then they may also quite possibly be saying that I, too, should do it, and I react strongly--and negatively--to these overtures.

The truth for me in all of this is that I do it for myself.  These capitals are me talking to me--they are not, particularly, me talking to the reader, though the reader may hear something of my conversation.  I certainly don't need to add more rules for writers--there are plenty of those to go around.  But, with this discussion, I do want to add to the universal treasury of options well-thought, and grounded in a reason for being.


Alberto Ríos
Department of English
Box 870302
Arizona State University
Tempe AZ 85287-0302
(480) 965-3800
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Date last modified:
Saturday, May 25, 2002